How often do we consider the implications of the words we use in everyday conversation? Probably not at all. The most any of us try to do with language is communicate some sort of message to another person. We use those words that are accessible and able to convey our meaning.
But sometimes a word will carry a hidden meaning or connotation beyond it’s simple requirement of fitting into a sentence. In Going Nucular Geoffrey Nunberg talks about the way he sees words demonstrate our changing ideas and sensibilities; one word replaces another, an old word is adopted to a new point of view, or sometimes it’s just the way little words like and or of are used.
Words usually have something to hide—you have to shake them until the top pops off and some revelation tumbles out, an insight into some attitude that it would be hard to put your finger on by any other means.
—Going Nucular, Geoffrey Nunberg, pg.xiii Public Affairs 2004, 2005
Like a detective revealing clues in a mystery novel, Nunberg creates his case through the republication of essays that examine and cite different examples of his search for hidden meanings. While light-hearted in tone, and quite funny at times, his topic is far more serious.
Unlike his fellow linguist, Noam Chomsky, he isn’t looking for some massive conspiracy which he can blame on somebody or other. Instead he shows us something equally insidious; that manipulation of thought and emotions can be carried out with just one word.
In building his argument he examines the different environments that words function in: politics, business, media, technical, and culture. He also broaches areas slightly less definable; how words are used within the context of symbols, warfare and in society in general.
The book is divided up into sections that correspond (as in “agrees with,” not “writes to”) to the above categories. Nunberg than looks for and cites examples of each of his three ways in which words reflect changing ideas and sensibilities. By this means, he is able to build his case one layer at a time, and establish the pervasiveness of the problem.
He is primarily concerned with American society and the English language. Although he does examine some of the texts from bin Ladin’s telecasts and speeches by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, their inclusion is only due to their relevance to the United States today. Those words which have either been replaced or received a makeover are given a historical background to emphasise the significance of their metamorphosis, but only within the confines of America’s internal political strife.
For international readers this is important to keep in mind, because Nunberg is only representing one side of a political argument, and is basing his observations on a body of knowledge derived from a specific place within American society. A person from the other side of the political spectrum would no doubt refute the findings presented in this book. Those who had their awareness shaped differently than Mr. Nunberg, whether through economy, education, or upbringing, would probably offer views differing from those presented in Going Nucular.
That being said, the point of contention would not be his overall thesis, but rather the examples cited. Even then, the examples themselves wouldn’t be the problem, it would be the values placed on them. What Nr. Nunberg criticizes, others might laud.
Although I personally am in complete agreement with the views expressed in this book, the author is in some ways doing exactly what he decries. By his shaking up words to see what pops out as a meaning or implication, he is manipulating opinion to reflect his values by discrediting their current usage.
What difference is there in George Bush’s deliberate mispronunciation of the word “nuclear” in an attempt to sound like “plain folk,” and Mr. Nunberg’s pointing out of the foible? Each man is manipulating opinion to their point of view.
In his introduction Mr. Nunberg makes very clear where he stands:
If changes in words are often the sign of changes in values and attitudes, then we can deplore the first by way of condemning the second.
—Going Nucular, Geoffrey Nunberg, pg.xv Pulbic Affairs. 2004-2005
When reading these types of books, I often wonder for whom they have been written. Whether conservative or liberal in point of view, they are not going to win any converts to their cause. Primarily, they seem to just add more kindling to the bonfire of political discourse. Something new to inflame the invective of the opposition and fire up the believers.
Each new salvo serves to delineate divisions rather than restoring harmony. There comes a point when preaching to the converted stops serving any constructive purpose for society as a whole. No matter how valid or worthy the topic, would not all of our intellectual energy be put to better use looking for ways in which to bridge gaps, and not make them deeper?
I’m sure that when Mr. Nunberg wrote his columns, or when he compiled this book, he did so out of a genuine interest and passion for his topic. He could not write so thoughtfully and comprehensibly on this subject otherwise. Dealing with a subject that has the potential for the language of academia he is able to maintain a high level of accessibility without ever sounding condescending.
By never stooping to finger-pointing or blaming, just describing and explaining, he manages to smooth the sharp edges from his criticism. He lightens the tone even further with his gentle wit. He comes across more like a kindly schoolmaster remonstrating with students than a political columnist.
As a person with a fascination with words and how they are used and abused (I’ve even written on the subject myself), I personally enjoyed reading Going Nucular, and was in total agreement with all he said. On the other hand, I’m sure that George Will and Rush Limbaugh would not share in my evaluation.
This book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but even if you disagree with Mr. Nunberg’s evaluation of the results of what’s occurring with language, if you are interested in the evolution of word meaning and implication, Going Nucular is worth picking up. Who knows, you may end up finding you have a word or two in common, and it’s not too great a leap from there to a conversation.